Dr Fiona Donald, President of the Royal College of Anaesthetists

Published on: 15 Jun 2023

AUTHORS:  Dr Sanketh Rampes and Dr Anvarjon Mukhammadaminov 

In this series the Medspire team interviews doctors about their career, their specialty, the choices they have made and their advice for doctors and medical students.

Today, the subject is Dr Fiona Donald, a consultant anaesthetist working in Bristol, and president of the Royal College of Anaesthetists. Her main area of clinical research interest is within obstetric anaesthesia, concentrating on improvements in safety through team training. 

This article is an abridged version of the interview. The full podcast is available here:


How did you get to where you are today?

I went to medical school in Bristol, did a year's medicine, went through my training in anaesthetics, and got a consultant job in Bristol. My clinical interests are in obstetric anaesthesia and preoperative assessment, and my non-clinical interests have been mainly in teaching and training.

I was a college tutor and became a college examiner. I was elected to the council of the Royal College of Anaesthetists, became a vice president, and I’ve ended up as president. 


What attracted you to anaesthetics?

It includes all the things I really like – you get to talk to a lot of patients, and see a variety of specialties. There's some emergency and planned work, a lot of technical skills to learn, and a lot of physiology and pharmacology, both of which I enjoy. And anaesthetists are just great people.


What are your clinical interests?

I still do obstetric anaesthesia. It has a lot of interaction with patients, because in obstetrics in particular, patients are usually awake when they're having their operations, so we need to talk to them. I also enjoy that multi-professional, multi-disciplinary working that goes on in obstetrics.


What makes a great anaesthetist?

Attention to detail. Everything we do has an immediate effect when you're giving an anaesthetic or undertaking some of the procedures, so it's important to be meticulous about everything you're doing. 


“Make sure that you're going to enjoy the life you have, as well as the job you have.”


What’s your advice to medical students and doctors interested in a career in anaesthetists?

When you’re doing your medical student detachment make it clear you're interested in the specialty, because you will get one-to-one teaching – you'll be in theatre with one anaesthetist who will be looking after you entirely – so you've got a chance to pick up hints and tips. 

Anaesthetic departments love having people coming to do taster days, so approach them, or go through your postgraduate centre. And most anaesthetists are pretty approachable, so just talk to them when you’re in theatre.


What do you hope to achieve during your presidency?

I started as president in September 2021. One of the things I've got to deal with is the fallout from the pandemic. Anaesthetists and intensivists have been at the forefront of the response, and there's a lot of weariness and burnout among our members, and their careers have been disrupted.

We’re short of anaesthetists around the country, so we need to persuade the government and other arms-length bodies that we need more anaesthetists, so more training places. Retention and recruitment are big priorities for me. 


What can the college do about the shortage of anaesthetists in the UK?

All specialties either are, or feel they are short of workforce within their specialty, so it's about making your case effectively so that it's heard by the people with the power to grant extra posts. We're hoping we will be able to secure some extra training posts for anaesthesia and for intensive care medicine


What values are important to you as a leader?

The most important thing is compassionate leadership – making sure people feel they're in a safe place at work, that they can make their views known, and will be listened to. That you will treat them with the respect they deserve, and not just see them as a “cog in a machine.” 


What has shaped you as a physician?

You learn lessons every day. With anaesthetics, you talk to lots of patients and their families, and you learn something from everyone. When I was a medical student, I saw a patient in the emergency department – a young man who was the first presentation of Addison's disease. This taught me you need to be learning and seeing patients because they will teach you things,and always listen to what people tell you.


What advice would you give about having a successful and fulfilling career?

Don't rush. Think hard about what it is that you want to do and what you like in medicine. For most people, the lifestyle that goes along with their job is as important as the job itself.

You have to make sure that you're going to be able to manage that work-life balance, and that you're going to enjoy the life you have, as well as the job you have. 


Have any role models shaped who you are today?

My family have been role models to me in terms of their values and the way they approach life. There have also been colleagues I've worked with where I have felt their value systems and their behaviours are things I would aspire to.

One particular mentor said something which has stuck with me – whatever you do, each day in your life you should try and be kind, and never deliberately do anything that would hurt or harm another person. That's a good mantra to go by.


Medspire podcasts are produced by Dr Sanketh Rampes and Dr Anvarjon Mukhammadaminov, both full-time junior doctors. They aim to inspire the next generation of doctors and scientists by exploring the career journeys of leading clinicians and researchers.